Knight of Cups follows the same paths Malick has taken before, and with much less insight.
Terrence Malick requires a litmus test. If you happen to like oblique narratives, dreamy long takes and ruminating voiceovers, then you’re a match. If life’s big questions and elliptical edits aren’t for you, look away. You won’t last a minute. This is to say that Knight of Cups follows Malick’s quintessential style and it makes for a unique and divisive viewing experience. Like The Tree of Life (2011) and To the Wonder (2012), the film combines incredible imagery with eloquent bits of speech. Unfortunately, Knight lacks the director’s usual sensitivity and clarity of focus. The film is woozy and emotional but not convincing.
Christian Bale stars as Rick, a man who has suddenly realized his life is meaningless. Like the rest of the cast in Knights, his characterization is scant: he lives in Los Angeles, works in the film industry and wears designer suits. Drawing from John Bunyan’s 1678 bestseller The Pilgrim’s Progress, he’s intended to serve as a modern-day pilgrim—a man walking “through the wilderness of this world” and yearning to restore his faith. The exploration proves difficult thanks to his materialistic milieu and his fondness for women who flaunt their breasts and say things like, “No one cares about reality anymore.”
The film is named after a tarot card that represents a bored, restless figure. When he’s facing up, he’s opportunity. Downward, he’s false promises and trickery. In other words, he’s the perfect complement to Los Angeles itself, a city famous for dreamers and dashed hopes. Following this mystical thread, the film is also broken into chapters named after tarot cards including “Death” and “Judgment.” As promising as the inclusion of the occult sounds, the connection between tarot and the events on screen is thin. It’s disappointing to see a man who once taught philosophy at MIT take such a blasé approach to a centuries-old belief system.
Instead, Rick understands the world and himself through women. Not a mother or sister—oh no. Rick’s women are gorgeous, sweet and often naked. There’s the reckless young actress (Imogen Poots) who tells Rick, “Let’s live like nobody has done it before… wicked.” There’s the model photographed in ridiculous poses (Freida Pinto), the Australian exotic dancer (Teresa Palmer) and the wealthy doctor (Cate Blanchett). But wait, there’s more. Natalie Portman arrives as a married woman who might be Rick’s one true love. She gets to know him intimately (“You’re so quiet. You keep everything to yourself”) and later tells him, “You have love in you. I know it.” These women are beautiful objects intended to spur the leading man into his higher consciousness.
While the women are content to stretch their limbs and romp on the beach, Rick gets to brood, apparently weighed down by loftier concerns. Some of those concerns revolve around family as Malick gives Rick a strung-out brother (Wes Bentley), whose empty living quarters and drug abuse points toward another man’s way of dealing with existential angst. We also meet Rick’s father (Brian Dennehy), a stern man who’s given one of the most clear-headed lines in the film, telling Rick, “You think when you reach a certain age things will start making sense, and you find out that you are just as lost as you were before.” It seems like Rick should open up to his father and address what’s bothering him, but instead, more women. This time it’s the model Isabel Lucas. It’s unclear what’s she doing here.
At age 72, and with an accomplished career, a masterful cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki) and a staff of devoted producers, Malick was in a good place to take a risk. Unfortunately, Knight of Cups follows the same paths he’s taken before, and with much less insight. Rick’s issues are a familiar amalgamation of Sean Penn’s nostalgia (The Tree of Life), Ben Affleck’s marriage troubles (To the Wonder) and Javier Bardem’s crisis of faith (To the Wonder). The Los Angeles setting is new for Malick, but we get the same freeways, deserts and modern condos we’ve seen before. The city’s alienating quality was portrayed much more creatively and incisively by Sofia Coppola in 2010’s underrated Somewhere.
Terrence Malick consistently privileges ideas and intuition over plot and dialogue. He’s made some magnificent films with the power to prompt a newfound self-awareness in the viewer. With Knights, however, the director tries to cram in so many ideas that none of them catch on. It’s similar to one character’s definition of damnation, where “The pieces…never to come together, [they’re] just splashed out there.”